In “Inventory of Disaster Field Studies in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 1919–1979” from 1982, Enrico Quarantelli remarked:
“…mostly because they have rarely been systematically studied in the field by social and behavioral scientists, very diffuse and slowly developing types of disasters, such as famines, droughts and epidemics were excluded from listing consideration. Emphasis in our inventory is on relatively focalized and sudden types of disasters. While our decision excluded some recent studies and publications, it did not exclude in absolute terms very much of a social scientific nature. Much of the work on famines, for example, is of a historical nature, or deals with the topic from a very practical or operational rather than a social science point of view…”1E. L. Quarantelli, Inventory of Disaster Field Studies in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 1919–1979 (Newark, DE: Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware, 1984).
Quarantelli was part of the first “social science disaster research group” that was founded in 1949 at the University of Chicago´s National Opinion Research Center (NORC). In this group, a specific form of studying “disaster”—that in the subsequent decades was often simply called “disaster research”—started to become institutionalized for the first time. Throughout the Cold War the work of its proponents remained highly influential within disaster studies and beyond, and its legacy endures to this day. One of the defining characteristics of disaster researchers was that they conducted field studies during “real” disasters, when and where they happened. They undertook no such studies in epidemics, and neither did other researchers whom they considered to be scientific enough to be included in their inventory of disaster field studies. Yet, the views on disaster that have propagated since the 1950s, have been frequently reproduced with respect to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In many ways this is a good thing. Especially when deconstructing images of “panic” in disaster, which disaster researchers had already done in the early 1950s, and most importantly when pointing out the fact—elucidated by them in the late 1960s—that both the course and the origins of disaster are highly influenced by structural social inequalities.“The history of disaster research points to the radical socioeconomic change needed to make Covid-19 less disastrous.”
Other key findings of Quarantelli, his colleagues, and his students, are less applicable for dealing with Covid-19. This includes, as I will show in this essay, their understanding of disaster as concentrated in space and time, the emphasis on good behavior in disaster, and the notion of disaster as revelation. Moreover, in several respects, the pandemic also calls for different research practices and ideals of science than those held in high esteem by Cold War and Cold War–influenced disaster research. Nevertheless, the history of disaster research points to the radical socioeconomic change needed to make Covid-19 less disastrous.
Slow disaster, rapid research
As the opening quote illustrates, disaster research´s lasting disinterest in epidemics was connected to its focus on disruptive phenomena concentrated in time and space, by which they defined disasters. The reason for this focus lay in disaster research´s origins in Cold War politics. The NORC disaster research group, but also those which emerged at the Universities of Maryland and Oklahoma, and at the National Research Council, as well as the Disaster Research Center (founded in 1963) at the Ohio State University (today based at the University of Delaware), were at least partly funded by the US military. Military leaders thought that the empiric study of civilian disaster could provide knowledge applicable in the prediction and regulation of American civilians’ reaction to a nuclear attack. They believed that the best proxy for such an enemy attack, which they assumed would come as a “surprise” and be over quickly, would be a “disaster” with (allegedly) similar qualities, such as blizzards or earthquakes.
Disaster researchers, however, retained their narrow focus on geographically bounded and sudden-onset disasters, even after funding became entirely civilian, and even after they recognized the existence of different and new risks that could lead to worse disasters in the future, like the HIV/AIDS epidemic.2E. L. Quarantelli, “Emergency” (working paper, Delaware Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, 1989).
Such an approach to disaster is of course inadequate for grasping the messy temporalities of the Covid-19 pandemic. But so is an exclusive reliance on the “rapid response” field studies methodology Cold War–era disaster researchers usually employed. For example, a care-crisis phenomenon—in which the question of who is being cared for and by whom (physically, politically, and ethically) is central—that evolves over a long period of time needs to be observed carefully and reflected on for a long time, and in more than one location. Rapid research was highly compatible with the rationalities of maximized accumulation of data and augmented competitiveness that underpinned the Cold War social science complex, with its short-term contracts and limited budgets.“Cold War disaster research stuck to rapid-response field studies, because as their ‘brand,’ these distinguished them from other producers of disaster knowledge, such as psychoanalysts.”
Cold War disaster research stuck to rapid-response field studies, because as their “brand,” these distinguished them from other producers of disaster knowledge, such as psychoanalysts. At the same time, being “in on the action” of “rapid response,” was part of the scientific culture of what Lewis M. Killian called uncritically a “disaster research fraternity,”3Lewis Killian, preface to Methods of Disaster Research, ed. Robert A. Stallings (Xlibris, 2003), 47. in which very few women obtained leading positions until the 1980s. As Kathleen Tierney explains, it was believed that men were “better able to cope with the hardships of postdisaster fieldwork”4Kathleen Tierney, “From the Margins to the Mainstream? Disaster Research at the Crossroads,” Annual Review of Sociology 33 (2007): 503–525, 515.—hardships that, as argued by Killian, made it “easy for the researcher to be affected by the drama and the tragedy which so strongly affected his subjects, so that interviewer bias can easily become a problem.”5Lewis Killian, An Introduction to Methodological Problems of Field Studies in Disasters, (Washington, DC: NRC, 1956), 5.
For several decades, the leading researchers in the disaster research field (and in the field work that was so crucial for its identity and institutionalization) were not only almost exclusively male, but also white and North American. Following insights from feminist science studies scholars,6Carla Fehr, “What Is in It for Me? The Benefits of Diversity in Scientific Communities,” in Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science: Power in Knowledge, ed. Heidi Grasswick (Dordrecht: Springer 2011), 133–155. I would like to argue that the research groups’ lack of social diversity had serious epistemological consequences and contributed to the fact that until the 1970s and 1980s, they only peripherally studied the role class, gender, or racism play in disaster. It was only in the course of engaging with the so-called urban “riots” of the late 1960s and 1970s that the latter became a more important research subject for the directors of the Disaster Research Center (DRC). When William A. Anderson became influential at the DRC, he would help shift the focus to structural inequalities as preexisting conditions, from the study of “violence” “unrest” to that of socially augmented “disasters.”
Resilience and revelation
That disaster survivors themselves can deal with the hardships of disaster very well has, since the 1950s, been a core finding of Cold War-influenced disaster researchers. According to them, individuals do not break down during disasters, but act rationally and in a “prosocial” manner. Communities can even see an “amplified rebound effect” and “grow” with disaster, as long as they have sufficient resources and are not disturbed by too much outside intervention by inefficient or extractive organizations and governments. This claim has become widely accepted in the past two decades, even though researchers like psychoanalyst Martha Wolfenstein, who was at a one time tangentially involved in the disaster research community but whose work fell out of favor, had criticized it as early as 1957, as “underestimating” “the distress” of “victims.”7Martha Wolfenstein, Disaster: A Psychological Essay (London: Routledge & K Paul, 1957), 83–84.
It is questionable that the notion of the naturally well, (auto)regulating disaster subject applies to the Covid-19 pandemic. What is more: This notion contributed to the hegemonic formation of the resilience paradigm, which has served beyond the disaster research field as a legitimation of neoliberalism’s reduction of governmental support and the imposition of self-reliance. The radicalization of the racial capitalist, “economization of life”8Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017More Info → that neoliberal programs have fostered across the globe has been directly responsible for the immense death toll of Covid-19 and it serves as both a structural and a cultural obstacle to the type of (global) solidarity that is indispensable for dealing with this pandemic. The privatization of public health and the dismantling of social safety nets left public institutions unable to cope with the virus and forced people to expose themselves to it as they had to keep working in order not to go hungry. Moreover, in many countries, the ideology informing the management of the pandemic was one that prioritized saving “the economy” over saving the lives of those perceived as disposable (for not being beneficial to said “economy”).“Cold War disaster researchers contributed to backing up the idea of the revealing nature of disaster scientifically.”
In the past few years, the resilience paradigm has been increasingly challenged in disaster studies—though its use continues to be popular. But another framework for interpreting disaster that was promoted by Cold War disaster research seems to be largely uncontroversial: The characterization of disaster as revelation. The idea that a disaster would reveal hidden truths about humans and how they live in the present can be traced back to premodern times. During the twentieth century, it became pivotal for ascribing disaster predictive faculties with respect to the future.9Eva Horn, The Future as Catastrophe: Imagining Disaster in the Modern Age, trans. Valentine Pakis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018). Cold War disaster researchers contributed to backing up the idea of the revealing nature of disaster scientifically. Borrowing from the language of the natural sciences and thus increasing the scientificity of their claims—they described it as an “equivalent of an engineering experiment,” or a real-world “laboratory” in which the underlying structures and “patterns” of societies would become observable.
In the context of Covid-19, the notion of the revealing disaster has been nearly ubiquitous, often used with the “laboratory,” or “experiment” terminology, but also with that of the “contrast medium.” “Contrast media” are, or produce, sharp demarcations. The metaphorical use of the term betrays an understanding of disasters as unveiling normality, because they supposedly are in opposition to it. This view is connected to Cold War disaster researchers such as Charles Fritz who interpreted them as providing a “clean break” from the past. Moreover, Fritz explained disasters’ revealing effect as being caused by their capacity of “compressing vital social processes into a brief timespan and by bringing normally private behavior under public observation”—a property that the slow disaster(s) of Covid-19 do(es) not possess.“Conceptualizations of ‘slow disaster’ are often informed by Robert Nixon’s analysis of ‘slow violence.’”
Conceptualizations of “slow disaster” are often informed by Robert Nixon’s analysis of “slow violence.” According to him, slow violence is characterized by frequently being invisible. Thom Davies has, however, pointed out that for those directly affected by it, slow violence is all too often clearly recognizable. Moreover, he underlines that “slow violence does not persist due to a lack of arresting stories” about it “but because those stories do not count,” when forming policy, or even just having the political will to end them.10Thom Davies, “Slow Violence and Toxic Geographies: ‘Out of Sight’ to Whom?” Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space (Spring 2019): 1–19, 3. In my view, this also holds true with respect to the slow violence that Covid-19 allegedly makes visible, including that of capitalism, racism, and sexism, which have been visible and have been called out as underlying causes for disaster for decades. Among those telling “arresting stories” have been the Cold War disaster researchers, even tough, as mentioned above, only from the 1970s onwards. As long as these stories do not count (enough), and (the slow violence of) these systems of oppression persist, the spectacular display of a disaster such as Covid-19—as an abnormal (event)—can also be seen as obscuring other disasters.11For conceptual discussions and case studies of “slow disaster” see e.g., Ben Anderson et al., “Slow Emergencies: Temporality and the Racialized Biopolitics of Emergency Governance,” Progress in Human Geography 44, no. 4 (2019): 1–19; Nahid Rezwana and Rachel Pain, “Gender-based Violence before, during and after Cyclones: Slow Violence and Layered Disasters,” Disasters, May 14, 2020; and the case studies of Kim Fortun, Kaitlyn Rabach, Tim Schütz, Prerna Srigyan, and Maggie Woodruff, Environmental Injustice seminar: https://disaster-sts-network.org/content/environmental-injustice.
Researchers as activists
How can disaster scholars increase the chances that the “arresting stories” they tell count? One could argue that they could tell better stories by, for example, analyzing the racism they encounter with insights, methodological approaches, and theoretical tools from across disciplines and from scholarship on racism, sexism, or intersectionality conducted outside of disaster studies. In crossing disciplinary boundaries within and outside the field, they might take inspiration from what the NRC’s Committee of Disaster Studies did and attempted to do during the 1950s—before the disciplinary narrowing of disaster research toward sociology—by funding the disaster work of scholars from various disciplines, many of whom were not “career disaster researchers.” Scott Knowles’ “COVIDCalls” exemplify how productive similar conversations can be with respect to the current pandemic.
What seems to me to be most pressing is, however, that disaster scholars tell their stories better. If disaster scholars believe the obvious, that disasters, like Covid-19, cannot be prevented nor dealt with adequately unless there is radical socioeconomic change, they should say so more clearly, more loudly, and more passionately. Moreover, it is high time that more disaster scholars go one step further and become antidisaster activists by, for example, becoming antiracist and feminist activists.
In order to be able to do so, disaster scholars need to overcome still existing ideals of science as “value neutral.” While it has become almost common place among scholars that disasters are politics,12Michael Guggenheim, “Introduction: Disasters as Politics – Politics as Disasters,” in “Disasters and Politics: Materials, Experiments, Preparedness,” supplement, Sociological Review 62, no. 1 (2014): 1–16. the insight that science too is “politics with other means”13Donna J. Haraway, “Primatology is Politics by Other Means,” PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1984, no. 2 (1984). brought forward by feminist activists/science studies scholars since the 1970s is far from accepted. The opening quote from Quarantelli indicates that the legacy of Cold War disaster research in this respect is one of scholars who continued to struggle with their role of producing practically applicable disaster knowledge, which to them seemed difficult to combine with their ideal of scientific objectivity.
Maintaining the fantasy of science´s “view” as “coming from nowhere” yet “seeing all” does not only stand in the way of disaster scholars (further) turning to advocacy and activism, it is also an obstacle for good science. It runs contrary to the insight that “strong objectivity” that produces robust knowledge can only come from integrating multiple perspectives, and from research groups that are more diverse and have a more participatory practice.14Sandra Harding, “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is ‘Strong Objectivity’?” Centennial Review 36, no. 3 (1992): 437–470. For a recent discussion and example of feminist approaches to disaster studies, see Kaira Zoe Alburo‐Cañete, “PhotoKwento: Co‐constructing Women’s Narratives of Disaster Recovery,” Disasters, May 2020. Building on the legacy of Bill Anderson, a lot has been accomplished in this regard; however, there is still a lot more that needs to be done. Especially when it comes to collaborations with researchers from the Global South and their treatment as equals in the process, from research design, through dissemination and publication.“Consequences on the way ‘disasters’ are defined in the first place and how the inequalities at stake in them can be known (otherwise) by more diverse, empathetic scientists who spend more time engaging in more egalitarian ways with those about and with whom they do research.”
Also, when it comes to other issues mentioned in this essay—like the use of problematic frameworks for thinking disaster as resilience and disaster as revelation—a lot of rethinking and re-orientation remains to be, at least, considered. Moreover, there is still a need for more reflection on the method of rapid-response field studies. This includes discussions about the reproduction of power relations in the field and other ethical challenges. For example, J.C. Gaillard and Lori Peek, director of the Natural Hazards Center, formulated a call for “a code of conduct for disaster-zone research,” to which the current directors of the DRC promptly reacted by stating that there is “no need for a customized code of conduct.” These discussions are also crucial for future transformations of disaster studies as a field, because they (can) entail further examination of the epistemic consequences of certain research methods and their “truth spots” including the scientific ideals behind them, such as specific (limited) notions of authenticity and experience. Consequences on the way “disasters” are defined in the first place and how the inequalities at stake in them can be known (otherwise) by more diverse, empathetic scientists who spend more time engaging in more egalitarian ways with those about and with whom they do research.
This current crisis is a good moment for disaster studies communities to fully crawl out from underneath the shell of the Cold War defense intellectualism, which disaster research never fully embraced in the first place. It is time to stop being defensive intellectuals who guard the borders of their fields and disciplines, as well as their neutrality, and become voices for the change that is indispensable for tackling this disaster, and those to come.
Banner photo: The National Guard/Flickr.